2021 Acura TLX A-Spec Review: Making the Grade

It’s incredible what a few subtle changes to proportions can do for a car.

Take the 2021 Acura TLX, seen here in bright red A-Spec form. The basic design isn’t terribly removed from the previous model: there’s still a diamond-shaped grille, squinty headlights, and clean flanks. It’s an evolutionary look, not revolutionary.

So why does it look so damn good?

The answer lies in the details. Acura has massaged the proportions, dropping the roof, extending the hood, and moving the passenger compartment further aft. The team has looked back at what put it on the map—engaging performance sedans in a more affordable part of the market—and the TLX is the first product on this roadway to rediscovery. It’s more than just a sharp new suit: the TLX has gone to the gym, with a redesigned suspension setup improving both the ride and handling. Acura’s targeting the sport sedan leadership more clearly here than it has in well over a decade. Luckily, the TLX is up to the task.

Concept car looks

Acura gave us all a good idea of what to expect from the 2021 Acura TLX last year. The Type S concept was a breath of fresh air, and promised a renewed focus on performance. A year later, the production car remains faithful to that mission. A lower, meaner nose gives the TLX a road-hugging appearance—an extra 2.2 inches (55 mm) helps, too. Shapelier taillights are the biggest change from what’s come before, with two wide exhaust tips framing the bumper. The TLX is a fair few inches longer than most other cars in the class. The added length lets the designers work with more graceful lines, and the result is a crisp, confident sedan. If only the glass panel for the driver assistance systems were better integrated into the nose…

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The A-Spec model adds chunky 19-inch, split-five-spoke wheels at all four corners, with blacked-out window trim and a matching rear lip spoiler. It also brings a round of upgrades inside, including great-looking, supportive seats in perforated leather and suede. The front thrones are both heated and ventilated, which comes in handy on a week with both snow and shorts-appropriate weather. The A-Spec also swaps in unique instrument dials, with red letters on a gray background. It looks suitably sporty, but can be very hard to read, even before you don polarized sunglasses.

There’s a lot to process the first time you sit in the TLX. While nearly every luxury marque is busy decluttering its dashboards, Acura has gone in the other direction. There’s a thick waterfall of a center stack here. Nowhere is Acura’s renewed dedication to engaging driving more apparent than in the drive mode selector being right in the middle of it all. I appreciate the move, but it does mean prime real estate is being used for something most drivers probably only fiddle with from time to time. Just below is a push-button gear selector, which never failed to catch me out even after a few days.

All that being said, everything looks and feels properly premium. Rear-seat space is also ample, with plenty of room for adults to fit comfortably, even on long hauls. The trunk is generously sized at 13.5 cubic feet (382 liters), which bests most of the competition.

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Smart and secure handling

The big news for the 2021 TLX is the return of a double-wishbone front suspension setup. It allows Acura’s engineers to more finely control how the front tires interact with the road, resulting in that most elusive of improvements: better handling and a smoother ride. Acura’s also offering the latest evolution of its SH-AWD setup on every available trim (it’s standard in Canada). Our tester uses the all-paw system, which is now capable of sending up to 70 percent of power rearwards.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Acura ILX A-Spec Review

For now, just one engine is on offer: a 2.0-liter turbo-four, like nearly everything in this class. This one has performance roots, as it’s related to the engine found in the sublime Civic Type R. Here it makes less power, but at 272 horsepower and 280 lb-ft, it’s still more powerful than nearly every other four-pot sedan. The TLX is also larger and heavier though, so we don’t expect it to be the drag-race winner. Nonetheless, it’s quick enough, with the 10-speed automatic doing a fine job of shuffling between its many ratios.

Add it all up, and the TLX is much happier to tackle a winding road than last year’s model, which should put a smile on drivers’ faces too. Despite the front-drive-based platform, the TLX AWD feels balanced and playful, turning in sharply and refusing to let poor tarmac upset it. The flat-bottom steering wheel is light on feedback, but maintains consistent weighting through every corner.

If only the engine sounded better. The 2.0-liter is muscular, but its loud without being particularly tuneful. Let it run into the upper half of its rev range and you’ll find a gruff, almost diesel-like noise. The aural angle is the only one that isn’t quite convincing here.

Those looking for an even sportier drive will need to wait until next year, when the Type S touches down. That model will use a unique 3.0-liter turbocharged V6, packing 355 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. But importantly, the TLX A-Spec proves that car will have a solid base to work with.

Tech suite good; infotainment less so

There’s another, tougher nut for Acura to crack too: infotainment. Like other Japanese purveyor of luxury Lexus, Acura has opted for a trackpad to control its central screen. It’s almost always cumbersome, since anything rougher than freshly sealed pavement can cause you to make a wrong selection. What’s more, this isn’t like the Lexus system, where you can “scroll” via multiple touches to eventually get to the on-screen button you want. If you take your finger off the trackpad, you start from go again. I’m not a fan, and I quickly switch over to Apple CarPlay, never looking back. (Android Auto is supported too.)

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On a much more positive note, the 17-speaker ELS Studio 3D audio system is fantastic. Crystal clear and very powerful, it deserves mention for any audiophile. At this price point, only Lexus’ Mark Levinson system can match up. Now there’s an idea for a comparo…

There’s a bit of an old-school feel in the TLX, as it skips out on the fashionable fully-digital instrument panel many competitors are adopting. There’s a head-up display available, but only on the top trim, not the A-Spec. A WiFi hotspot is available across the lineup.

Acura also piles on the standard safety and driver assist features, which is still sadly uncommon in this segment. Automated emergency braking, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, road departure mitigation, traffic jam assist, adaptive cruise control, and auto high beams are all along for the party, regardless of trim. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert join the party one step up in the Technology pack, and you’ll need to pony up for the top package to net a 360-degree camera.

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Verdict: 2021 Acura TLX A-Spec Review

Lots of people have fond memories of the old TL. It found a sweet spot in the automotive realm, with the bullet-proof reputation of Honda, yet the cachet the H badge couldn’t offer. But in the last decade Acura lost its way. Don’t take our word for it: even the company said as much.

SEE ALSO: Acura AVP: Shift Away from Sedan Focus ‘Saw Our Brand Being Diluted’

Good news then, that the TLX represents a return to form. It can’t quite match the dynamic goodness elsewhere in the class, but it’s living on the same street. The previous model didn’t even go to the same school. The TLX is still playing catch-up in the infotainment department, but that’s a much easier hurdle than the dynamic one.

Better yet, the 2021 TLX starts at $38,525 ($46,065 CAD) for a well-equipped base front-drive model. If you’re looking for a stylish, engaging, affordable sport sedan, the TLX has just made the selection process much harder.

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